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A Story of Strength: Suicide Prevention and Awareness

By Sydney Meyer
On September 13, 2017

Photo by: Ashley Alonzo

It’s time to talk about it.

It’s time to talk about the pain, the oppression, the miscommunication. It’s time to talk about the stigma, the judgment, the misrepresentation. It’s time to talk about the lost lives, the unanswered cries of help and the failure to say the right thing.

It’s time to talk about how suicide has become the tenth leading cause of death for US citizens of all ages, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Suicide prevention is at the forefront of current OU student and soccer player Cheyenne Walker’s mind.

After a diagnosis of severe depression, bipolar disorder and two suicide attempts, Walker has overcome the adversity and stigmas of mental health. She has become a strong advocate for suicide prevention.

“I speak for those who are afraid to speak for themselves,” Walker says.

Cheyenne attended college in Arizona, where she joined a sorority in 2013. The sorority, Phi Chi Multiculture Sorority Inc, acted as a gateway, enabling her to open up about her depression and allowed her to become involved with Empact, a suicide prevention center.

“I want to eliminate the stigma behind mental illness,” Walker says. “People break an arm and people are like, ‘I want to sign your cast.’ You say you have something wrong with your head, and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re kinda weird.’ It should just be a normal thing to talk about.”

Suicide has become such a prevalent issue, it’s important to become educated about how to talk openly about suicidal thoughts and mental health in general.

“If someone is reaching out, they really trust you and trust your relationship with them," says Kelsey Foss, the university's counselor and disabilities coordinator. "Being willing to listen is a lot more powerful than people think it might be."

Too often, individuals are too uncomfortable with the subject to ask questions. Sometimes it’s difficult to know how to handle the situation, or how to say the right thing, if anything at all.

"It's okay to say 'I don't know what to say right now, but I hear you and I'm going to be with you' or 'I'm not going to leave you alone,'” says Foss. “These statements show support without including the judgment piece.”

Listening with a non-judgmental ear, being open to what the individual has to say, responding with statements such as "I hear what you're saying" or "I care about you," and offering up different options for assistance are all important ways to make the individual feel heard and supported.

"If I were to talk to somebody about having suicidal thoughts, I would say it's okay to ask for help. … That's not a sign of weakness. In fact, I see it as a sign of strength," Foss says. "I think that so many people are afraid and they think that they need to handle the situation on their own, and that's not the case. There are a lot of people who want to help," Foss says.

The next step is obliterating the stigma of mental illness.

“Do not shame those who have attempted or those who have successfully ended their lives. There’s so much ignorance behind suicide. … You don’t know what’s going on in my head. You don’t know what someone else is going through,” Walker says. “An insensitive comment could be the thing that pushes someone over the edge to actually trying to kill themselves. It comes with educating about mental illness and educating about suicide and why people think that not being here anymore is a better option than to keep moving forward and see that light at the end of the tunnel.”

Those experiencing suicidal thoughts have many resources at their disposal. The most important thing is to confide in someone, to let others know you’re battling these thoughts.

“That’s what comes with eliminating the stigma, with being open about it and saying ‘Hey, I’m not doing too good today, I kinda want to talk about it.’” Walker says. “And that’s okay. … If you want to get better, you’re going to have to take a step to better yourself. Take that initiative.”

We, as a campus, have to rise up against this epidemic. We must take a stand together, show solidarity, defend one another against the thoughts and voices that pronounce that there is no other way out. We must care for each other, call out these threatening voices, and open communication to help each other realize that there are other options. There is help available.

“If you’re struggling right now, don’t be afraid to reach out to anyone. It could be your suitemate, your roommate, your mom, your dad. Just talk to someone. The more you isolate yourself, the more you’re hurting yourself, from experience,” Walker says.

Walker likens isolation to a “snowball effect,” creating a whirlwind of dark thoughts, ending with loneliness and lack of contact — the exact opposite of where a person should be. Talking to someone makes you feel a million times better, according to Walker. 

She also recommends posting on social media, stating that you’re struggling, and accepting support from those who care about you. Another method is to journal, to write down the things you’re grateful for, the things you’re feeling good about. That way, in the challenging times, you have something to read about, to remind yourself that you truly do have people who care and a life worth living.

“I do that — I’ve had those times where I’m like, ‘I really have nothing going for me. But then it’s like, wait, just kidding. I have a family who loves me, I’m going to school, I’m playing soccer, I’ve got good friends.' We lose sight of that when we’re in that dark time.” Walker speaks.

If you or somebody you know are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please know there are alternatives. You have choices. You are not alone.

Sparking conversation is the first step to suicide awareness, and this September, the counseling center plans to do just that. Throughout the week of September 18-22, the center has planned several events to encourage awareness, providing themes such as "My Story Isn't Over" and "There is S'MORE to Life" to encourage both conversation and competence.

"These are events where people can get together to talk about a serious topic, but can show their support in a fun way, too," says Kelsey Foss. "It gets more interactive throughout the week. We try to make a point to have that awareness week because, nationally, it's the suicide awareness month."

The counseling center on campus is in the Ward Science building on the first floor, room 105. Their hours are Monday-Friday, 9-4. You may schedule an appointment by calling 785-248-2582 or emailing Walk-ins are also welcome, as schedules allow.

At the counseling center, Kelsey Foss will provide direct counseling services, can connect students to community resources, and will make referrals, if necessary.

If a crisis occurs during business hours, call the counseling service at the number listed above. Crisis intervention is necessary and appropriate if an individual is having suicidal thoughts.

If you are worried about the immediate safety of an individual, call 911 for emergencies, contact the Elizabeth Layton Center at 1-800-241-1266, or utilize the Suicide Prevention Lifeline Number, 1-800-273-8255. 

Look for upcoming suicide awareness events during the week of September 18-22. There will be sticky notes, henna tattoos, s'mores, and more, so please show your support.

We can eliminate the stigma. We can raise awareness. We can help. But only, if we do it together.

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